1946: The first television show to have a commercial sponsor debuts. The show does not last long. TV commercials will.
The Federal Radio Commission (later renamed the Federal Communications Commission) started issuing television licenses in 1928. These noncommercial licenses did not allow selling airtime or any other commercial use, but a few stations had begun airing advertisements nonetheless.
The FCC began granting commercial TV licenses in May 1941. NBC’s New York City station, WNBT-TV (now WNBC-TV), which had the first such license, ran the first official TV commercial on its first day of commercial operation, July 1, 1941.
During a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, an image of a Bulova clock appeared with a map of the United States. The announcer intoned: “America runs on Bulova time.” The ad lasted 10 seconds, and Bulova paid $9 (about $140 in today’s money). The audience for that ad numbered 4,000 television sets.
U.S. commercial television suffered a five-year interruption as the nation prepared to go to war, fought and won, and then re-geared the economy to civilian and consumer purposes.
Geographically Speaking debuted in 1946. Audiences were still small and mostly local: The coverage area was limited to a few big cities, and few people in those cities had receivers. Consequently, television programmers were desperate for moving images.
Mrs. Carveth Wells hosted the show, which consisted of showing 16mm home movies of her extensive travels around the world with her explorer husband. It was like watching your neighbors’ home movies on a small, grainy black-and-white screen. And you didn’t even get to enjoy their dinner and drinks. Such is the price of being an early adopter.
NBC didn’t actually get a sponsor for the primitive show until Nov. 11, when it enlisted Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb and still advertising such products as Abilify and Plavix on TV).
Geographically Speaking aired its last episode Dec. 1 after a six-week run. Wells had run out of her travel movies.
Sponsors had not run out of money.
This article first appeared on Wired.com Oct. 27, 2008.